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Standards Are Foundation For Building Knowledge By Jeremiah Reedy

December 30, 2003

Last week, the Chair of the MN Education Committee stated that he would schedule a legislative hearing on January 23rd "in reaction" to the social studies and science academic standards proposed by the MN Academic Standards Committee. He also indicated that he would expect to make changes in the proposed standards. In light of Senator Kelley's expressed rejection of the Declaration of Independence as a founding document of our country, this raises serious concerns about the changes Senator Kelley intends.

Please plan to attend these hearings. We will be providing you with time and location.

Standards are foundation for building knowledge
Guest Columnist
St. Paul Pioneer Press

Being a self-appointed educational reformer and one who is passionately interested in K-12 education, I have been perusing the public comments on the proposed social studies standards, all 198 pages of them and following the discussion in the media. Interesting patterns have emerged, and also a number of what I consider serious misconceptions. Here I shall deal with two of the more serious, "educational formalism" and the claim that we don't know what students should study because the "knowledge explosion" renders facts obsolete as fast as we and they learn them.

Educational formalism is the belief that the content of education is arbitrary any content will do as long as the desired skills are acquired. Among skills mentioned are critical thinking, decision making, problem solving, analysis, synthesis and "metacognitive skills" (how to think about your thinking). I shall begin, however, with the most important skill of all, reading.

In his 1987 book "Cultural Literacy," E.D. Hirsch made a powerful case for the claim reading is not a "general, transferable skill" that can be taught in the abstract or in a vacuum. In order to read even a newspaper with understanding, one must have the background knowledge that writers assume readers have. Putting it another way, all writers assume the existence of an "ideal reader" with whom they share a body of knowledge. This is why in our culture, writers don't have to identify Jesus or George Washington or Martin Luther King Jr.; nor do they have to footnote Cleopatra, Columbus or Sitting Bull. On the other hand, one mentioning Jacques Derrida in a letter to the editor should explain who he is. One must have a great deal of factual knowledge to read, and this is what our schools should be teaching. Those of us who teach foreign and classical languages know that we can't simply teach grammar, vocabulary and perhaps "decoding skills" and turn students loose on texts. It is impossible to read any language without background knowledge about the culture of the speakers.

What Hirsch proved about reading applies also to other skills, which means educational formalism is a chimera, "a vane and foolish fancy." If it weren't, one could take a course in "thinking like a lawyer" and not have to attend law school. Does anyone really believe people who have taken courses in problem solving and decision making could solve our medical problems and make decisions about treatment even though they hadn't studied medicine?

No one denies a "knowledge explosion" has taken place in the natural sciences and their offspring, technology. There has, however, been nothing comparable in the humanities (literature, history, philosophy, etc.) or in the social sciences (psychology, sociology, anthropology, etc.). No one is writing better stories today than Homer's epics, the narratives of the Hebrew scriptures or the parables of the New Testament. Still the question remains, "Do we know what students need to know?"

In order to participate intelligently in "democratic processes," citizens should be able to read newspapers, magazines such as Time and Newsweek, and books addressed to the general public. What one needs to know to read these is an empirical question that Hirsch and his associates answered empirically by examining the aforementioned publications. See the list of 5,000 items in the appendix to "Cultural Literacy." This is the knowledge base that graduates of high schools should have and without which they will not be able to read, much less master, the "higher order thinking skills." This is why we need "content-rich" curricula and why the standards for social studies proposed by the Education Department with their concrete and specific requirements represent a gigantic step forward for our students and our state.

Reedy is professor of classics at Macalester College in St. Paul.


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